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Between Europe's Borders

The City Where Each Side Completely Ignores the Other

In Kosovska Mitrovica, Serbs and Albanians live right next to each other, but never mingle.

by Irfan Ličina
05 August 2019, 1:20pm

The main bridge over the Ibar river. All photos by Irfan Ličina

The Kosovo War of the late 1990s, between ethnic Serbs and Albanians, created divisions that are still being felt today – and nowhere is that division more evident than in the city of Kosovska Mitrovica. The city is split by the Ibar river, with Serbs living in the north and Albanians in the south. Those two sides are connected by four bridges – although "connected" may not be exactly the right word here.

The war has divided, among other things, streets, squares, shopping malls and even cemeteries. There is, however, one exception: on a hill overlooking the city, there's a monument uniting the two groups, made of two columns carrying a mining container. One column represents Serbs, the other represents Albanians.

The monument was erected to honour the workers of the Trepča mines, which provided the main source of income for this town, and at one point accounted for 70 percent of Yugoslavia's mineral wealth.

1562778247535-The-Miners-Basker-a-monument-to-miners-and-the-struggle-for-miners-rights-One-column-represents-Albanians-the-other-Serbs-carrying-the-weight-together
The Miner's Basker, a monument to miners and the struggle for miners' rights. One column represents Albanians, the other Serbs, carrying the weight together.

The local football club was named after the mine. Until 1999, there was only one FC Trepča in Kosovska Mitrovica, but after the war this club was also divided. Today, both the Albanian and the Serbian sides of the town have a football club with the same name, and both claim their club is a continuation of the old one.

FC Trepča in the Albanian part of town plays its home games on a renovated Olympic Stadium, currently the largest in Kosovo. It's named for Adem Jashari, one of the founders of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

1562778368094-Ajet-Shosholi-the-director-of-the-southern-Kosovska-Mitrovica-FC-Trepca-the-teams-legendary-player-and-coach-standing-on-the-bridge-over-Ibar
Ajet Shosholli.

Ajet Shosholli, a legendary Kosovar footballer, used to coach the Trepča "golden boys", back when they won the Yugoslavian league and played the Marshal Tito Cup finals in Belgrade, in 1977-1978. Today, he is the southern club's director. When I speak to him, Ajet says that, currently, only Albanians play for the club, but that there would be no problem for Serbs to play – providing they want to be a part of the club and that their game is up to par.

Ajet often visits the northern side of the city for a walk with his wife, or a coffee with his colleagues and neighbours from the old days. He says the divisions between Serbs and Albanians are mostly created by politicians, especially those from Belgrade. Hindering the improvement of relations between Serbs and Albanians, he tells me, is in the interest of politicians from both sides.

After we have a coffee, Ajet takes me to see the Trepča stadium and shows me photos of the team he used to manage, which included players of all nationalities in the former Yugoslavia. He tells me that he mourns the old unity, when FC Trepča had both Serbian and Albanian supporters.

1562778398389-Ajet-Shosholi-showing-photos-of-the-historical-FC-Trepca-golden-boys-team-made-up-of-Serbs-Albanians-and-Macedonians
Ajet Shosholli showing photos of the historical FC Trepca "golden boys" team, made up of Serbs, Albanians and Macedonians.

While we're driving towards the stadium, Ajet tells me not to park in front of the main gate – just in case, because my fixer's car has Belgrade license plates. That same Opel has been driving through the streets in the Albanian part of the city for days without any issues, but there's still a possibility the car will be trashed, Ajet says, since young people – especially those born after the war – have just has much hate for the other side as their parents. They've inherited it.

Later, I meet with a young Serb, Milan, in the northern part of the city. He studies graphic design and is a member of the Mitrovica Innovation Centre, an NGO that has been operating in the city for three years and organises seminars, festivals and workshops.

1562778420938-Milan-studies-graphic-design-and-is-active-in-a-local-NGO-which-strives-to-connect-the-youth-from-the-north-and-the-south-of-the-city
Milan

These workshops usually draw young people from both sides of the river. Last year, they organised a graffiti camp together with groups from the southern part of the city, with both Serbs and Albanians participating.

Milan says it's a sad that all the camaraderie and friendliness established during the project evaporated as soon as it concluded. Albanian artists and youth in general almost never venture across the bridge to the northern side of town, but Milan also almost never goes south. He has no friends on that side – nothing that would take him there.

1562778490281-Albanian-flags-at-the-entrance-to-the-Bosniak-mahallah-the-only-street-where-both-Serbs-and-Albanians-live-but-also-where-most-of-the-incidents-occur
Albanian flags at the entrance to the only street in town where both Serbs and Albanians live.

In Milan's opinion, the language barrier is the biggest reason young people don't really communicate as much as previous generations, when Albanians were still taught Serbian in school, and when they simply picked up both languages by hanging out with each other. That's extremely rare nowadays.

The bridges over the river are now almost exclusively crossed for business reasons, not for pleasure nor friendship, my fixer Ješa tells me. Those bridges are guarded by Kosovo Force (or KFOR), the NATO-led peacekeeping force that's currently still responsible for keeping Kosovo safe. When the night falls during my visit, it's up to Italian carabinieri to take up their positions and man the bridges.

There's no official border in Kosovska Mitrovica – it's all part of Kosovo. Still, everyone stays on their own side, among their own people.

Scroll down for more photos of Kosovska Mitrovica.

1562778590245-A-view-of-the-main-bridge-where-most-incidents-take-place-from-the-bank-of-Ibar-river-The-bridge-is-under-24h-protection-by-Kfor-or-Kosovo-police
The main bridge over the Ibar river, which is under 24-hour protection by KFOR or Kosovo police.
1562778615439-The-women-who-sells-her-products-in-the-open-market-in-the-north-Selling-the-honey-she-gathers-and-socks-she-knits-herself-is-her-only-source-of-income
A woman selling her wares at the market in the north of town.
1562778626558-A-mural-in-the-center-of-the-northern-Kosovska-Mitrovica-It-was-painted-years-ago-and-has-slowly-became-the-symbol-of-the-northern-part-of-the-city
A mural in the centre of the northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica. It was painted years ago and has slowly become the symbol of that part of the city.
1562778655556-The-north-side-of-the-city-has-its-own-market-where-Albanians-come-too-but-the-sellers-say-that-happens-less-and-less-The-market-is-right-there-when-you-cross-the-bridge
A market in the north of the city.
1562778673263-Trepca-mining-grounds-forlorn-and-dilapidated-waiting-for-new-miners-and-an-end-to-the-ownership-dispute-between-Serbia-and-Kosovo
The Trepča mining grounds.
1562778696375-Bajram-Pashas-mosque-in-the-center-of-southern-Kosovska-Mitrovica
Bajram Pasha mosque in the centre of southern Kosovska Mitrovica.

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